Richard Curtis is arguably Britain’s top writer of transatlantic screen comedies, most of which trend toward romance and a certain rumpled charm. All of which means the bar moves higher for him with each new film; you expect more from the man who dreamed up “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Notting Hill.”
Thus, his latest comedy, “About Time,” which he wrote and directed, is a disappointment, not only because it keeps reminding you in spots of other films and plays that toyed with similar ideas — oh, let’s say “Groundhog Day” and “Back to the Future” or even the Thornton Wilder classic play “Our Town” — but also because the movie doesn’t measure up to Curtis’ own high standards.
It’s a good-hearted film with some nice moments but the film’s gimmick is weak and the film winds up, somewhat mawkishly, expressing the kind of sentiments that belong on Hallmark cards, not in a top-notch romantic comedy.
Let’s examine that gimmick: The men in a most unusual English family can travel back in time.
Now from H.G. Wells to the “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” writers of fiction have indulged in this highly seductive fantasy to concoct all sorts of science-fiction merriment. But what makes Curtis’ time-travelers unique among their fictional brethren is that Curtis is not the least bit interested in the implications or even the mechanics of such travel.
For him it’s only a dramatic devise. And not one he’s thought through terribly well.
A male member of the Lake family merely goes into a dark space, a closet or in a pinch a toilet, clinches his fists and, behold, he is back in time although not very far. He can travel back to an incident recently experienced — it has to happen in his own life — to tweak a thing or two and that’s about it.
So Tim Lake (a very redheaded Domhnall Gleeson, a “Harry Potter” alum) begins to experiment with such time travel. He can make no major changes to history, mind you. “You can’t go back and kill Hitler,” Tim’s dad (Curtis regular Bill Nighy) firmly explains to him on his 21st birthday.
Tim discovers you can only alter little things such as what you did or didn’t do with a girl the night before or perhaps arrange a better opening line. In other words, Curtis is only interested in time travel insofar as it concerns romantic adventures and family affairs.
The obvious things you or I might think of, such as going back a day and winning huge at the racetrack, never crosses the writer’s mind. Can Tim do this? you wonder. Good question. Maybe he actually could, but it’s out of bounds for this story.
Good thing since our Tim can’t imagine using these newly discovered powers for anything other than claiming his dream girl. It misfires when he tries to rewrite his destiny with his first dream girl (Margot Robbie). He meets her while still living at his parents’ seaside home in Cornwall. Maybe the timing wasn’t right.
Things work out much better a while later in London where he goes to study law. In fact, he meets and falls for Mary (Rachel McAdams) without the aid of time travel at all.
Then, foolishly and in a highly contrived if not unbelievable manner, he does time travel immediately afterwards to perform a good deed for his playwright-landlord (Tom Hollander). He impulsively does this without realizing that he has messed up the space/time continuum. Meaning he never met lovely Mary at all!
Enlisting the aid of his troubled sister (Lydia Wilson), he sets out to find his missing dream girl — he doesn’t even have her number in his mobile phone anymore — so he can meet her all over again.
This he, also improbably and again perhaps unbelievably, manages to do and, now using the aid of time travel, eventually hits on the right introductory words and manners to win her heart. After which, the gimmick pretty much disappears.
The lives of Tim and Mary and their respective families carry on without any magical aids until a fateful third act where two serious life-interrupters challenge the limits of the Lake family’s strange secret. (The Lake women seem blithely ignorant of the males’ supernatural powers, by the way.)
Curtis resurrects the devise in these moments to express his philosophy about treasuring life in all its minutia and making sure to live life to the fullest each and every day. As I say, it’s good hearted movie but no laugh-out-loud comedy here. Nor any real drama either.
You suspect Curtis could’ve said the same thing without the devise of time travel but didn’t trust himself, or perhaps his audience, to respond without the gimmick.
Either time travel should act as the driving force of the story’s plot mechanics or be dispensed with altogether. As it turns out, it simply gums up the works.
The actors, even down to peripheral characters, are uncommonly fine. Gleeson is not your usual leading man, a little gawky and quirky but he’s a smooth and confident actor.
Curtis can’t seem to help writing his leading characters in the mode of Hugh Grant, for whom he did write memorable roles in past films. So you can’t help but hear Hugh Grant intonations in Gleeson’s line readings.
McAdams displays real charm and likability as the vulnerable woman of the hero’s dreams, who proves to be very worthy of his idolatry. Nighy is superb — when is he not? — and Lindsey Duncan anchors the strange Lake family as mother and wife.
Hollander’s angry and aging playwright probably deserves a movie all his own for he fits awkwardly here at times. You sense there’s more to his story and would love to see it.
Ditto that for Robbie who threatens to come back into the story as a home wrecker but never quite does — to the point you wonder why Curtis bothered to bring her back at all.
Two amazing character actors, Richard E. Grant and the late Richard Griffiths, make cameo appearances as the leads in the playwright’s dramatic work. Unfortunately, this represents one of the movie’s weaker moments.
The story takes place, as always, in Curtisland. This is a recognizable London only populated almost entirely with well-to-do white people and many of its female characters sport the looks of high fashion models but have little actual depth.
As you might divine from these comments, Curtis’ entire screenplay feels poorly thought through. The characters’ roles in the dramatic structure and indeed that structure and the gimmick of time-travel itself never feel right.
Two different genres — rom-com and sci-fi — are at odds here with neither really winning although the rom-com does more or less triumph.
Curtis is now at a crossroads as a writer and director of film comedy. “About Time” illustrates he can more or less make any screenplay he authors, even one that needs further work.
Yet he is surrounded, apparently, by yes men. Someone in his fold needs to tell him when another draft or two is in order. As it now stands, only the moviegoing public will do so.
Opens: November 8, 2013 (Universal Pictures)
Production companies: Universal Pictures in association with Relativity Media presents a Working Title Films production
Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy, Lindsay Duncan, Tom Hollander, Margot Robbie, Will Merrick, Vanessa Kirby, Tom Hughes
Director/screenwriter: Richard Curtis
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Nicky Kentish Barnes
Executive producers: Richard Curtis, Liza Chasin, Amelia Granger
Director of photography: John Guleserian
Production designer: John Paul Kelly
Music: Nick Laird-Clowes
Costume designer: Verity Hawkes
Editor: Mark Day
R rating, 123 minutes